Iran strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ continues after the killing of Qassem Soleimani
President Trump has been remarkably consistent even if the rest of Washington hasn’t
Gigot: Let’s start with the European statement this week. How significant is it about Iran policy?
Dubowitz: I think it’s very significant. As you know and the viewers know, the Europeans have been opposing the Trump policy of walking away from the Iran deal and imposing maximum pressure but because of the Iranian strikes against Saudi oil facilities, which really is an attack on global energy supplies on which the world depends, they are moving closer to the President’s position and I think this is a reminder to the Iranians that they will be increasingly isolated if they continue their malign activities.
Gigot: So this basically takes off the table any of the ideas of providing tax credits that the French president had had for Iran to help them get over sanctions. But what needs to happen now from the Europeans if we really want to continue to pressure Iran. What should they do next?
Dubowitz: Well I actually think, Paul, they’re going to continue to try to convince President Trump to offer sanctions relief in some form.
Dubowitz: :Yeah, I think the French are not going to give up on this, they’ve floated this idea of a 15 billion dollar credit facility that the Iranians can draw down on, which needs US permission in order to operate. I think they’ll continue to try to push this idea, to give the Iranians sanctions relief to come back to the table but I think what the Europeans really need to do is send a stark warning to the Iranians that if they continue to escalate on the nuclear side, the Europeans are going to walk away from the nuclear deal and if they continue striking at global energy resources and infrastructure, the Europeans are going to snap back their own sanctions.
Gigot: Is the President likely to take that invitation from the French even after the strike on the oil facilities, I mean the President was looking to really talk to Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, at this UN meeting but it didn’t happen.
Dubowitz: It didn’t happen and it’s a good thing it didn’t happen, and I certainly think that the President isn’t going to allow himself to be blackmailed by the regime in Iran and offer them billions of dollars merely for the opportunity to come back to the table. So I hope that the President sticks to his guns and makes it very clear that unless Iran comes back to the table to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, based on the President’s terms, then the maximum pressure campaign is going to intensify.
Gigot: I was at a media breakfast this week with Rouhani, with several members of the press, and he was asked about negotiations with Trump, and he said “we will not negotiate unles the sanctions are lifted.” Of course, when you lift the sanctions then they have less incentive to cooperate. So, do you see any bend in the Iranian position from here?
Dubowitz: I see some bend because I think the Iranians recognize that they are facing imminent economic collapse.
Gigot: It’s that bad? That’s a fairly forceful statement – imminent economic collapse?
Dubowitz: Yeah, I think the Iranians are in a situation where they are running out of foreign exchange reserves, they’re not going to have the money to pay for imports that they need to run their factories, with factories closing they’re going to have massive unemployment, and so their situation is getting worse every day. And I think the administration, with a few moves, could actually bring about that kind of economic collapse which will then put the regime in a position where they’ll have to choose between negotiations and the survival of its regime.
Gigot: Now one of those actions is so called snapback sanctions which were part of the original 2015 deal but that involves the United Nations, does it not? Explain how that would work and what it would mean?
Dubowitz: So the way it works is under the Obama nuclear deal, the one good thing that the President negotiated at the time was a unilateral snapback, the ability of the United States to unilaterally snapback UN sanctions against opposition from Russia, China, or even Europe. So the United States can still move unilaterally to snapback those UN sanctions. And that’s important because it would bring back all the security council resolutions, it would force the Europeans to have to comply with these UN sanctions, and Asian countries, and it would isolate Iran politically but also it would do something, Paul, very important. There’s still about $5 billion dollars’ worth of Iranian-European trade this year. If you could shut down $5 billion dollars’ worth of trade, then you’re essentially in the position I mentioned earlier, where they can’t buy essential goods from the Germans, and the Italians, and the Dutch that they need to run their economy, sophisticated machinery that they need for their factories. You get rid of 5 billion euros of trade, and you’re putting Iran closer to that position of economic collapse.
Gigot: Just so I understand, this unilateral decision, just one country, the United States, could call for the snapback? It couldn’t be vetoed by China, couldn’t be vetoed by Russia and other Security Council members?
Dubowitz: That’s correct, it’s a unilateral snapback against the opposition of those countries. I think the Obama administration at the time wisely understood they were never going to get Chinese and Russian support so they negotiated a unilateral snapback. Now some are saying the United States can’t do that alone because the United States has walked away from the JCPOA. That is not the administration’s position in terms of the legal interpretation of that snapback.
Gigot: I guess the question is, if you’re talking about maximum pressure, why hasn’t the administration done this so far?
Dubowitz: I think there’s an internal debate about whether this is the time to impose that snapback, because essentially when you impose that snapback the Iranians walk away from the nuclear deal, everybody walks away from the nuclear deal, it’s dead and it’s buried and then you’ve got to deal with the fallout from that and part of the fallout would be continued Iranian nuclear escalation and you’ve got to be prepared for that.
Gigot: Thank you Mark Dubowitz, appreciate it.
Interviewer: So three of the candidates are getting support from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, you’ve got the top hostage negotiator, Robert C. O’Brien, Brian Hook, special envoy for Iran, Ricky Waddell, he is assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. So, although the President says that he will make the final decision, how much will Secretary Pompeo’s weigh in?
Dubowitz: Well I think the Secretary’s opinion will matter a lot. He has obviously a very close relationship with the President, certainly one of his closest national security advisors and is instrumental in most of the national security policies and challenges that the President will face over the next year and a half or longer.
Interviewer: Another name floated out there is US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. Would he be good for the position?
Dubowitz: Ambassador Grenell would be great, he’s got a very close relationship with President Trump, he’s been the ambassador in Germany, really sort of in the belly of the beast there. Doing great work in Iran, on US NATO relations, and so I think ambassador Grenell is also somebody who the President admires greatly. He’s got a great personality, he’s been out in the media and very articulate.
Interviewer: How hawkish or dovish can you expect the next security advisor to be?
Dubowitz: I would say that they’re all going to be on the hawkish side. At the end of the day, the President himself, despite the fact that he doesn’t want to get into additional wars, certainly talks tough and is willing to use instruments of national power, so I would imagine he would bring in someone who reflects those views. So it’s really going to be either hawkish or very hawkish but I don’t imagine you’re going to get anybody there who doesn’t understand that American power and American leadership is essential for American security.
Interviewer: I also want to talk about the other big story today, the drone strike on the two major oil installations by Houthi rebels that knocked out 5% of the world’s oil production, so Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying this was directed by the Iranian government. Do you agree with the Secretary, and if so, what is Iran up to?
Dubowitz: There’s no doubt this came from Iran, that Iran directed one of its proxies, whether it’s the Houthis in Yemen or some Shiite militias in Iraq, we don’t yet know. But we certainly know this is Iran’s mo. and they’ve been on a major campaign of destruction through the Middle East over the past number of decades, but certainly over the past recent months, trying to respond to the United States because we’re finally pushing back against Iranian aggression under this President with a maximum pressure campaign.
Interviewer: So you agree with the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, we’ve been getting reaction from Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut who disagrees, he by the way sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Murphy, again, on twitter is saying “this is such irresponsible simplification and it’s how we get into dumb wars of choice. The Saudis and Houthis are at war. The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back. Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it’s just not as simple as Houthis=Iran.” What do you say about that?
Dubowitz: I actually think it’s that simple. I think the Houthis, and we know this, have been trained by Iran and been trained by Hezbollah, they’ve been supplied with advanced weaponry by the Iranians and by Hezbollah and you have to understand, and I think everybody does on this network, that Iran has a business model and their business model is to basically replicate the Lebanese Hezbollah model across the Middle East in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, and obviously in Lebanon. So the Houthis are trained by Hezbollah, trained by Iran, supplied advanced weaponry by the Islamic Republic, and Iran is certainly not going to be able to hide its fingerprints behind this attack.
Interviewer: And as we told you, and as you well know, those oil installations are in Saudi Arabia. And we can report that today President Trump called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to reassert the President’s readiness to cooperate with the kingdom by all means, conducive to maintain its security and stability, reaffirming that the negative effects of those attacks on those facilities there, on the US economy as well as the world economy. And then, on top of that, because this is a developing story, moments ago we’re getting word from the US special envoy to Yemen urging all parties to “prevent such further incidents which pose a serious threat to regional security, complicate the already fragile situation, and jeopardize unled political process.” So will, or should, this impact any potential talks or meetings between President Trump and Iranian President Rouhani?
Dubowitz: Well it may. The President reportedly has been considering providing some kind of sanctions relief to Iran in order to enable that kind of meeting, there’s been talks about green lighting the $15 billion dollar French credit facility which would provide enormous relief to Iran. There was talks and reports that he might even be offering US sanctions relief. I think it would be very difficult for the President to do that now, in the wake of these Iranian and Hezbollah/Houthi attacks. I think the President is not somebody who’s going to be blackmailed by the Iranians and not going to be providing them billions of dollars in sanctions relief in the wake of these attacks.
Interviewer: So that’s a strong position. What’s the likelihood that in a couple of weeks when President Rouhani is here, that our President meets with him and looks him in the eyes and says just that – “I’m not going to be blackmailed”?
Dubowitz: Well I think President Trump would do that. I mean, if President Rouhani understands his predicament, he faces a severe economic crisis which could precipitate a major political crisis inside Iran, then he, if he’s smart, should sit down with the President and try to negotiate a comprehensive agreement. I think President Trump is going to sit down there and tell President Rouhani that no agreement will be acceptable unless it deals with the full range of Iran’s malign activities, its destructive activities in the region, its nuclear program, terrorism, missile program, the fact that it’s still retaining US and Western hostages. I think the President’s made that clear – an acceptable deal has to address the full range of those destructive behaviors, and the President is not going to be blackmailed by Iran and President Rouhani or anybody else.
Interviewer: Alright, we have to leave it there. Mark Dubowitz, thank you very much.
Shawn: This comes as Iran has threatened a private American citizen. State Department pushing back, saying that the outlaw regime in Tehran will face consequence if indeed anything happens to Mark Dubowitz and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Tehran announcing sanctions on them and basically threatening a private American citizen and the FDD because of their outspoken efforts for the Iranian people, for democracy and freedom in their country.
Wachtel: That’s right Eric. It’s like a throwback to the days when Salman Rushdie wrote the controversial book, the Satanic Verses, that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwah, actually put a death sentence on his head, asking for people to go out and kill him. It’s reminiscent of the early days of the Iranian revolution when there was so much zest and craziness and fanaticism in that country and it continues to this day and this is absolutely absurd.
Shawn: And Zarif seems to back all of this. Here’s what Mark Dubowitz tweeted about this, from the FDD, about this, saying “this is a direct threat against FDD, me and our Iranian and non-Iranian friends. These threats will only strengthen our resolve to research and reveal the truth about the regime in Iran, and to support the burning desire of the vast majority of Iranians for freedom.” Last word, Jonathan Wachtel, on what you would expect.
Wachtel: On the Foundation for Defense of Democracies? Bless them, I hope they’re going to be okay and nothing happens, but the international community, it shouldn’t just be the United States outraged about this, it has to be anybody. You can have differences with that foundation, which is pretty strident when it comes to Iran. It’s been very tough and it’s not surprising that the Iranians look at them as a direct threat. But they’re out promoting democracy, that’s the name of their organization. Iran is not about promoting democracy, it’s about shuttering, it’s about not allowing their own people to have access to social media, it’s about forcing women to wear hijabs – even if they want to or they don’t they should have the ability to decide what they want to do, and executing people for crimes that don’t constitute anything near what should be capital punishment in that country, imprisoning political prisoners, it’s out of control there.