Iran in the Crosshairs: Tracing Overt and Covert Action
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 30 Nov 2020
The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Prof. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, has seriously complicated any efforts to normalize relations with Iran under a new Biden administration. Walberg contrasts the republican and democratic positions toward Iran while tracing key historical and recent events all in an effort to provide deeper insight into understanding Iran and U.S.-led efforts toward destabilization. –– Editor
As bad as they are on other foreign policy issues, the Biden-Harris victory in the November election is still a cause for optimism in U.S.-Iranian relations, given what we have seen under Trump. At a minimum, it brings (1) hope that the U.S. will come back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or 2015 Iran nuclear deal, (2) mitigates the danger of war, and (3) could lead to the reduction or ending of sanctions. However, the recent assassination of Prof. Fakhrizadeh complicates efforts to normalize relations.
The grounds for optimism centers on the fact that there are clear differences between the Republican and Democratic party when it comes to foreign policy and specifically with respect to Iran.
On Iran, the Republicans in 2020 maintained their position from 2016 that the JCPOA was nonbinding without endorsement by two-thirds of the Senate.
In their assessment, the JCPOA had emboldened the regime in Tehran to continue to “sponsor terrorism across the region, develop a nuclear weapon, test-fire ballistic missiles inscribed with ‘Death to Israel’ and abuse the basic human rights of its citizens.”
The Democratic Party platform, by contrast, states that it will “call off the Trump administration’s race to war with Iran,” noting that “the United States should not impose regime change on other countries” and that the party “reject[s] that as the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran.”
The platform calls for returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, maintaining that it was “always meant to be the beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran,” and that it “remains the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb.”
Thousands protest potential war in Iran in New York City in January 2020.
In April, Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden called on President Donald J. Trump “to ease economic sanctions on Iran as a humanitarian gesture during the global coronavirus pandemic,” stressing that “the U.S. has a moral obligation to be among the first to offer aid to people in need regardless of where they live when confronting a virus that knows no borders or political affiliations.”
The above statements offer some hope of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations with Biden’s election and a new era of peace. However, one should not get one’s hopes up too high.
Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani faces strong opposition from conservatives in elections set for June 2021, is expected to demand a high price to return to the JCPOA, including the immediate lifting of punishing economic sanctions and billions of dollars in compensation, which the new Biden administration is unlikely to grant.
In September Biden told CNN that as president, he would “make sure U.S. sanctions do not hinder Iran’s fight against Covid-19,” but that he would continue to adopt “targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.”
Another precondition for restoring the JCPOA is a temporary freeze on uranium enrichment and reduction of Iran’s large stockpile. Iran, however, would only agree to this if the U.S. and EU would comply with the terms of the JCPOA and lift the sanctions.
By all indications, Biden remains committing to isolating Iran as part of a foreign policy strategy which is designed to sustain U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and access its oil.
The Democratic Party platform does not call for any cutbacks in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni adversary, nor to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which the Trump administration has sold F-35 jets to. It also reiterates an “ironclad commitment to Israel,” another of Iran’s nemeses.
While seeking to end the blank check offered by Trump, the Democrats remain committed to the modernization of the Gulf monarchies (Qatar, Bahrain, UAE), which are a key part of the U.S. containment strategy directed against Iran.
In addition, the Democratic Party platform does not stray from language that singles out Iran as a rogue state, and emphasizes its desire to “extend constraints” on its nuclear program and other threatening activities, including its “regional aggression, ballistic missile program and domestic repression.”
No parallel program is put forward for Saudi Arabia, whose domestic repression and support for regional aggression is far greater than Iran’s.
Though adopting a softer line than the Republicans, the Democratic Party platform overall does not diverge from the characteristic Western thinking on Iran, shaped by unremitting media hostility, which considers the country as a theocracy, whose oppressive character is reflected in its promotion of the death penalty.
The Iranian government should be criticized, to be sure, for certain things like its jailing trade union activists and dissenters and allowing the oil and gas wealth of the country to line the pockets of corrupt clergymen and their allies, rather than Western corporations like in the days of the Shah (1953-1979).
The U.S., however, has lavished aid to far worse governments—including the Saudis, and Egypt under Fatah al-Sisi—and the threat that Iran represents has been consistently overstated.
Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has not invaded any of its neighbors and it has repeatedly been falsely accused of supporting terrorist attacks.6 As for the death penalty, it is limited to treason, serious corruption, drug smuggling and murder and it is affected without the Saudi head-chopping.
Iran’s government has serious factional divisions. The group led by current President Hassan Rouhani is far more liberal on many issues and tolerant than the conservatives led by Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, who include anti-semitic elements that want to destroy Israel.
Like with Russia, the concerns of gay rights groups has been used to advance an imperialistic political agenda. Iranians are generally kind and hospitable to foreigners, as many Western travelers have noted, and the country’s cultural heritage is magnificent.
One observer told The Independent that the Iranians were quite a…
“sophisticated and educated people [who] revere their poets…[The population is] very pro-American. They make a clear distinction between the American people and the American government. They have a developed political system…and it makes a difference if the more reformist or conservative factions win the elections. Saudi Arabia has no democracy, it’s just a monarchy where rule is handed down from one king to the next one.”8
Moving beyond media stereotypes, we can generally find many positive things about Iran and its people.
Instead of demonizing the country, trying to cripple its economy and overthrow its government, we in the U.S. and the West more generally can and should embrace it as part of the community of nations.
From Wild Card to Acceptance
While it is not socialist, Iran can be considered one of the principle anti-imperialist nations in the world, along with Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus and North Korea. Because of its anti-imperialism, the U.S. has reserved the full force of its wrath for Iran. The U.S. could never accept the Islamic revolution of 1979, which overthrew the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, whom the U.S. had installed after overthrowing the democratically elected regime of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.
Scene from the 1979 Iranian revolution. [Source: nytimes.com]
Just as the Soviet Union was blackened, subverted and invaded from 1917 on, Iran is in the sights of U.S.-Israel continuously. Thus, its suspicions about Iranian émigrés and westerners in general are not paranoia.
Obama’s major foreign policy achievement—the JCPOA—got Iran to agree to redesign and convert any nuclear weapons-production facilities, allow for inspections and restrict stockpiles and mining of enriched uranium in return for the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions, the release of four Americans from Iranian jails, and secret cash payments to help resolve claims over a failed arms deal under the Shah.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin was instrumental in convincing Iran to sign the deal as a means of averting a world war. Iranian assets totaling $150 billion were released because of the lifting of sanctions.
Obama faced a backlash from the political right and extreme right-wing elements in the CIA and Israeli intelligence establishment and politics as well as from members of his own party, like Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey (D) who said that the administration sounded like “talking points that come straight out of Tehran.”
In an unprecedented step, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited, without consulting with Obama, to address the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.
As Gareth Porter convincingly argued in Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (2014),
with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, the whole campaign against Iran’s nuclear program was merely the pretext to keep the CIA at the center of U.S. foreign policy—a new threat that conveniently conflated both Iraq and Iran with “terror” and of “weapons of mass destruction.”
From 1979 on, the Iranian leadership has repeatedly said it was not interested in a nuclear weapons program, and there is no evidence to the contrary.
Prior to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Obama had approved a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz in collaboration with Israeli intelligence. Obama’s political career was sponsored from the beginning by Lester Crown, former chairman of the arms manufacturer General Dynamics, who pushed a hawkish line on Iran. In line with his wishes, the Obama administration had further encircled Iran with Raytheon Patriot and Lockheed Martin Aegis missiles equipped with advanced radars placed in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE.
The Obama administration further waged economic war by pushing Saudi Arabia to raise its oil production to drive prices down (Russia was also a target) and strengthened Bush-era economic sanctions which resulted in a precipitous decline of the rial.
In 2012, Hillary Clinton’s State Department removed the Mujahadin e-Khalq (MEK) from its list of terrorist groups, which left the cult-like dissident organization—its members displayed fealty to the group by divorcing their spouses—free to raise funds and plot sabotage operations against the Iranian government.
MEK had started as a key underground movement under the Shah but then fell out with the Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian revolution, and began a campaign of assassinating Iranian leaders in the early 1980s while allying with Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
After taking them off the list of terrorist groups, the Obama administration donated $20 million to the UNHCR refugee agency to help MEK resettle to a massive military-style secret base in Manez, Albania, where locals staged protests, but to no avail.
Obama’s policy toward Iran was, thus, on the whole very hostile to the Iranian regime. In his speech announcing the Iran nuclear deal, he blamed them for “destabilizing behavior across the Middle East and support for violent proxies in Syria and Yemen.”
The latter charges were heavily politicized as it was the U.S. proxy Saudi Arabia which had criminally invaded Yemen, and the U.S. itself which had destabilized Syria by backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist elements in a huge covert operation designed to topple the regime of Bashir al-Assad.
The U.S. had also tried to destabilize Iran through its covert support for MEK and sanctions, and covert strategy of trying to encourage ethnic groups to become secessionists and rise up against the government.
For all the contradictions and problems with Obama’s approach to Iran, the signing of the JCPOA brought some hope that Iran was being welcomed back into the Western fold. Its theocracy, when viewed up close, no longer seemed so bad, as memories of the 1979-81 hostage crisis (where no one died except U.S. military personnel in a failed rescue mission) were put on the back burner.
After the nightmares of the U.S. New World Order since 1991—the dismantling of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war (with the U.S. arming both sides, the better for them to destroy each other)—it looked for a moment as if the U.S. might be humiliated enough, and hurting enough, to push it a bit in the right direction, toward peace instead of war. It looked like a bit of the “peace dividend” promised in 1991 and immediately betrayed. (Remember the halcyon days of détente after the Vietnam humiliation?)
But then came Trump.
Trump and the Dogs of War
In September 2018, the Trump White House asked the Pentagon to draw up options for military strikes against Iran in the wake of two incidents in Iraq when mortar shells and rockets fired by militias exploded near U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Contingency planning for potential conflicts is routine but, according to the Wall Street Journal, the seriousness of the request from the National Security Council unnerved defense and state officials.
“It definitely rattled people,” a former senior U.S. administration official was quoted as saying. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
Trump combined his military threats have continued with a series of inflammatory tweets and threats to destroy Iran’s major cultural sites.
Trump tweet threatening Iran. [Source: twitter.com]
The Trump administration stepped up regime-change efforts further by expanding ties to MEK as part of his coalition of Iranian dissidents intent on overthrowing the government.
In 2017, the year before John Bolton became President Trump’s National Security Adviser, he addressed members of the MEK and said that they would celebrate in Tehran before 2019.
Trump had campaigned in 2016 on a platform of overthrowing the Iranian government and, immediately after his inauguration, he began taking steps to scuttle the JCPOA, pulling out completely by 2018 and initiating a U.S.-enforced embargo on all trade with Iran. This has become Trump’s signature foreign policy, with both Iran and Venezuela his bètes noires.
Regime change in Iran had been a key goal of the neoconservatives associated with the Project for a New American Century, who wanted to use the 9/11 attacks to expand U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.
Some of Trump’s top political donors—Sheldon Adelson, Bernard Marcus and Paul Singer—were tied to the Israeli hard-right, which considers Iran an apocalyptic threat. Adelson is so extreme that he once proposed launching a nuclear weapon into the Iranian desert—as a negotiating tactic!
Britain’s own Trump, Boris Johnson, bumbled into the fray when Britain’s colonial outpost Gibraltar seized an Iranian oil tanker accused of violating EU sanctions in 2019. Iran stared Boris down, seizing a British oil tanker in retaliation, then suggesting a swap. Never, joked Boris, … and then swapped. Iran humiliated its nemesis Britain, whose meddling in Iran dates back to the 19th century.
The seizures continued, with four tankers of Iranian oil headed to Venezuela seized by the U.S. in August 2020, even as the UN Security Council voted to abide by the JCPOA and allowed Iran to buy arms through October.
This is outright piracy and is implicitly accepted by the West, watching this as if it is some kind of reality TV show. Trump promised to enforce the “snap-back” clause in the agreement itself and prevent Iran physically from buying necessary arms to defend itself. Trump’s gunfight at the OK Corral continued as the countdown to November approached.
The assassination of General Soleimani in January 2020 was Trump’s signal achievement in his scheme to overthrow the Iranian government. According to political analyst Michael Hudson, the assassination of Soleimani was intended to escalate America’s presence in Iraq to keep control of the region’s oil reserves, and to back Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi troops (ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusra and other divisions of what are actually America’s foreign legion) to support U.S. control of Near Eastern oil as a buttress of the U.S. dollar.
Though condemned even by liberal figures like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as a “bad man” and “terrorist” who allegedly helped plant roadside bombs targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, Soleimani’s real crime was to fight against ISIS and other U.S.-backed terrorists in their attempt to break up Syria and replace Assad’s regime with a set of U.S.-compliant local leaders—and to support the Iraqi government’s efforts to reclaim its oil fields which Trump had bragged about grabbing.
The illegal, shoot-em-up action was universally condemned, but had no consequences for the U.S. other than a targeted bombing of the U.S. Al-Asad air base as a show of Iranian defiance, killing no one.
It is only a matter of time before Hollywood cashes in, feeding U.S. war lust, Argo part II. Iran’s status keeps growing through all this, as Iran is in the same boat, and for the same reasons, as other defiant regimes—Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, Bolivia, Russia and China among others.
Iranians mourn the death of revolutionary guard commander, Omar Suleimani.
Economic War Through Sanctions
The sanctions—which Iran’s President Hassan Rohani characterized as an “economic war”—have been devastating for Iran, with even most coronavirus medical aid forbidden. Iran’s GDP contracted 5% in 2018 and shrunk another 9.5% in 2019, according to the IMF. The cost of products like paper tripled, forcing many businesses to close. The price of beef and veal has also risen nearly 50 percent, and the cost of milk has almost doubled. While inflation has increased by 40 percent, Iranians have been deprived of medicines and medical equipment.
The purpose behind the sanctions was explained by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told CBS News on February 14, 2019, that “things are much worse for the Iranian people [with the U.S. sanctions], and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”
The Trump administration’s threat to impose sanctions on countries that purchased Iranian oil hit Iran especially hard. President Rohani claimed on December 31, 2019, that the renewed sanctions cost Iran $100 billion in oil income and another $100 billion in foreign investment credit.23
Mehdi Tajabian, a 30-year-old Iranian musician and protest artist, told The Washington Post that “every single day, as soon as people open their eyes, they face a dark and vague future.”
This is designed by Washington as punishment for Iran’s successful defiance of the U.S.-led world order, and overthrow of the Shah who had terrorized Iranians for 25 years after the U.S. and UK overthrew democracy in 1953.
Iran is blessed with just about all climate variations, so no one starves. The theocratic flavor to Iranian politics means there is a sense of responsibility to Allah in government actions. Those are the aces up Iran’s sleeve, making it virtually impossible to starve Iran into submission.
The rise and fall of the Iranian GDP in the context of U.S.-led policies.
Fateful Triangle: The U.S., Iran and Israel
But we must not forget Israel. Israel’s Settlements Minister Tzachi Hanegbi warned on Wednesday, November 4th, that Biden’s position on the Iran nuclear deal could lead to war between Israel and Iran. Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zvi Hauser took a more optimistic approach. “I assume that even if the Iran Deal is renewed… it will be better than the previous one,” he told Army Radio.
Really, it is U.S.-Israel, as they are inseparable. Israel depends entirely on massive U.S. funding and its illegal settlements are full of U.S. immigrants. If the U.S. sneezes, Israel feels it and shudders. Trump promised to move the capital to Jerusalem and he did. So that, and UAE and Bahrain establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, can be added to assassination as his other achievements in foreign policy.
As a thank-you, Israel has been up to its cyber and sabotage tricks in Iran. A decade ago, joint U.S.-Israeli efforts resulted in the development of the Stuxnet computer worm, which infected key nuclear facilities at Natanz and Parchin, and metastasized around the world. In June 2020, a series of explosions in Natanz, missile sites, petrochemical centers, power plants and medical clinics, showed U.S.-Israel was actively at work inside Iran, no doubt with MEK help.
Both Netanyahu and Trump loudly call for a full-scale attack, doing their best to provoke Iran into providing a “Gulf of Tonkin” newsbyte to set off the fireworks. Iran’s calm, measured actions internationally belie the efficacy of this old ploy. The seizure of four tankers by the U.S. in early August was surely part of a pre-election “October surprise” strategy, intended to push U.S.-Israel into all-out war, a “perfect storm” for both Trump and Netanyahu, faced with fractured societies and electoral defeat and jail terms, which only war can salvage.
Biden-Harris: Back to the Future?
Four more years of Trump would have been a disaster with a huge likelihood of war by U.S.-Israel. With Biden it is more likely a war by Israel.
Biden will have to step right up to the plate before Israel pulls another Iraq-style lightning bombing raid on its nuclear energy facilities and defense installations.
Of course, Israel’s needs must be considered, and the prospect of any alteration of the U.S.-Israeli alliance under Biden-Harris is very slight.
Biden himself famously quipped, “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.” On the other hand, Biden has in the past shown a willingness to compromise and has made it clear annexation of the West Bank would not get a “green light” or recognition from his administration. But Biden has stated he would leave the embassy in Jerusalem.
Harris says Israel is “a beautiful home to democracy and justice,” and does not advocate putting conditions on aid to Israel. In short, she has not made any statement that would leave her open to attack from Zionists, and will abide by whatever AIPAC and Biden call for.
Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario under Trump will be averted. Oil companies need not worry. They were against invading Iraq and just as against invading Iran. “Make peace,” they plead, “so we can ‘invade’ Iran (economically).” Despite official hostility to all things U.S., Iranians (like Soviet-era citizens) love all things U.S. except invasion. Even my staunch anti-Mullah friend Ali in Tehran would fight Americans invading.
As for funding by MEK and other anti-Iran lobbyists, there is MEK’s U.S. front group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). President Trump’s Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett briefly advised the NCRI as a client while working at a Washington law firm when the NCRI challenged its State Department designation as a foreign terrorist organization. Her work did not come up in her confirmation hearing.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton have both been outspoken proponents of the group, as have Democrats like former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
But it is the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the largest organization representing people of Iranian heritage in the U.S., founded in 2002 to promote Iranian-American civic participation, that helped shape the JCPOA during Obama’s presidency. Its guiding force is Trita Parsi, and The Hill cited Parsi and NIAC’s work in support of the Iran nuclear accord as one of the “Top lobbying victories of 2015.”
In January 2020, three Republican senators, Mike Braun (UT), Ted Cruz (TX) and Tom Cotton (AK), requested that U.S. Attorney-General William Barr “evaluate whether an investigation of NIAC is warranted for potential Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) violations and to ensure transparency regarding foreign attempts to influence the U.S. political process.”
In response to the letter, dozens of academics, policy professionals, activists, former senior U.S. officials and non-governmental organizations signed a statement denouncing the Senators’ letter and expressing solidarity with and support for NIAC. It will be key to helping Biden get the U.S. back on track.
No doubt MEK and Israel will still try to blow up and assassinate, as we have seen with the assassination of Prof. Fakhrizadeh. But the nightmare of Trumpism is over. And then there are the handful of lefties in Congress demanding Israel shape up or face the consequences. The days of Trump’s Israel-Iran policies appear to be numbered, and hopefully will never come back.
Eric Walberg is a journalist specializing in the Middle East and Russia and author of numerous books including Islamic Resistance to Imperialism (2015, Clarity Press) and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and Great Games (2011, Clarity Press).
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