Earlier this month, Responsible Statecraft reported — based on recently obtained documents via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit — that the hawkish DC think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies was at the center of an online harassment campaign funded by the State Department that targeted Americans, including journalists, and human rights advocates, because of their opposition to Donald Trump's Middle East policy. Quincy Institute Multimedia Producer Khody Akhavi breaks the story down:
September 25, 2023Middle East
During a recent House hearing on “Iran’s escalating threats,” a Democratic lawmaker completely dismantled all the myths opponents of diplomacy peddle about Iran and its nuclear program.
The hearing was dominated by hawkish voices on Iran, who urged for increasing pressure and spurned any diplomatic engagement. The only exception was Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institute, who took a more moderate stance.
The other witnesses, especially Behnham Ben Taleblu, from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hardline “pro-Israel” think tank that often pushes militaristic approaches to U.S. foreign policy, called for a more confrontational U.S. stance by triggering the “snapback” of UN sanctions in October, a move that would likely drive Iran to the edge of a nuclear breakout and spark a major nuclear crisis.
Taleblu also lambasted what he said is the Biden administration’s “overall risk aversion” in response to Iranian regional intervention, which he said amounted to “signaling irresolution” to Iran. He cited several incidents where he claimed the U.S. failed to enforce what he called “deterrence by punishment.” He said they deserved a “kinetic response” (a euphemism used by the DC Blob to mean military strikes), arguing that these events eroded the perception of “American willingness to use force in general.”
Against this backdrop, one of the most striking moments of the hearing was when Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) exposed the flaws and fallacies of Taleblu’s arguments by eliciting the expert testimony of Maloney, a scholar on Iran and its politics. Connolly skillfully used a series of questions to highlight how the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had successfully curbed Iran’s nuclear program and ensured its compliance, before it was recklessly abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018. He also challenged the notion that a military solution was viable or desirable for the U.S., especially when Israel, one of the most vocal opponents of the JCPOA, had refrained from using it when it had better options.
Connolly dismantles the hawkish myths about the JCPOA
Connolly started by asking Maloney if there was ever a peaceful solution that had rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and prevented it from reaching the threshold of a nuclear weapon. Maloney confirmed that this was achieved by the JCPOA, and added that Iran’s compliance was verified by the IAEA and by Trump’s own State Department. “Iran was complying with the JCPOA,” she said.
She also said that if the deal had been fully implemented, and if there had been an opportunity to negotiate a follow-on agreement, as “everyone who was involved in the deal had hoped,” then the U.S. would be “in a much stronger position with respect to Iran’s proximity to nuclear weapons capability.”
Maloney added: “We have far worse options today than we had in 2015 or we did in 2018 when President Trump exited from the deal.”
Connolly then turned his attention to one of the most vocal opponents of the JCPOA before it was implemented: Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. He recalled how Netanyahu had bypassed President Obama and addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015, arguing that the JCPOA was so vital and so dangerous that it superseded politics.
He asked Maloney whether Netanyahu had been concerned about Iran’s nuclear threat when he first took office as prime minister, and whether he had the ability to launch a military strike against Iran then. Maloney admitted that Israel had better options then than it does now, but had refrained from attacking Iran.
Connolly wondered why some people were eager to advocate for a U.S.-led military option now, when Netanyahu himself had not used it when he had a better chance. He said that it would be much more complex, difficult, and costly for the U.S. to attack Iran now. Maloney agreed that this was “a fair statement.”
Connolly concluded by saying that the U.S. had to consider the consequences of its actions:
“It’s something we have to consider, and we have to take responsibility for the past. A lot of the people who opposed JCPOA were proved wrong, they didn’t cheat, they complied, it was verified by IAEA and by the Trump administration itself, and we walked away from it. We did that. Not Russia. Not Iran. And we need to take some responsibility for that and try to repair some of the damage we caused.”
The Iran Hawks’ Agenda: Sabotaging Diplomacy and Pushing for War
Connolly exposed the Iran hawks’ arguments for what they are: a collection of lies, distortions, and contradictions that aim to sabotage diplomacy and drag the U.S. into another unnecessary and costly war.
The fact that hawks like Taleblu and FDD continue to advocate for more pressure and military confrontation with Iran, despite the dismal failure of their approach, reveals their true agenda: they want to destroy any chance of peaceful resolution and force the U.S. into a confrontation that would serve only the interests of neoconservatives and the right-wing Israeli government. We need more courageous politicians like Connolly to stand up to their warmongering and defend diplomacy as the only sensible way forward.
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September 22, 2023QiOSK
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that “Israeli officials are quietly working with the Biden administration on a polarizing proposal to set up a U.S.-run uranium-enrichment operation in Saudi Arabia as part of a complex three-way deal to establish official diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern countries,” according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
The article, authored by Dion Nissenbaum and Dov Lieber, largely showcases Israeli opposition to the deal. Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group whose mission includes providing “education to enhance Israel’s image in North America…” was quoted opposing a uranium enrichment program on Saudi soil. He warned that “we’re one bullet away from a disaster in Saudi Arabia,” adding, “What happens if, God forbid, a radical Islamist leader takes control?”
Israeli sources speaking to the WSJ acknowledged concerns about nonproliferation safeguards and the potential for a regional nuclear-arms race. But the one expert who was reported as thinking “the idea is worth exploring,” is an executive at an organization that depends heavily on Saudi funding, a potential financial conflict of interest that wasn’t disclosed by the WSJ to its readers.
The WSJ quoted Brian Katulis, described as “vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington,” supporting the controversial idea.
Nissenbaum and Lieber reported:
“The concerns of a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East are very serious and real, indeed,” [Katulis] said. “The question is whether the U.S. sitting on the sidelines, crossing its arms and scolding countries in the region for pursuing civilian nuclear energy is a more effective strategy than starting a discussion that aims to build trust and confidence among key actors in the region like Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
Katulis said, “The risk of some hostile leader getting these capacities is one we’ve seen and managed in a number of places around the world, including Pakistan.”
“It’s not an ideal situation in those instances,” he said, “but the risks can be managed.”
The WSJ didn’t provide readers with the context about MEI that is provided on MEI’s very own website: the organization’s biggest funders are linked to the Saudi government, a government which, in this case, is pushing for the very nuclear deal that the WSJ was reporting on.
MEI’s website discloses that in the first seven months of 2023, its single largest contribution was $833,456 from Saudi Research and Media Group, a publishing group with close ties to the Saudi ministry of information. MEI also collected $200,000 from Aramco, the Saudi largely-state-owned oil company and $25,000 from the Saudi embassy in Washington.
To its credit, MEI has been transparent about its funding and makes the information readily available on its website.
The WSJ, on the other hand, did not inform readers that its only pro-Saudi-nuclear-deal source’s work is partially funded by Saudi sources, a potential conflict of interest that may be of interest to readers seeking to better understand the benefits and pitfalls of the Saudi-Israeli normalization framework.
The WSJ did not respond to a request for comment.
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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Jan. 2019 (Photo: lev radin via shutterstock.com)
September 22, 2023QiOSK
UPDATE: Sen. Bob Menendez temporarily stepped down from his powerful role as chairman of the Senate Relations Committee late Friday afternoon, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Federal prosecutors indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on corruption charges for allegedly taking bribes to help business partners in New Jersey as well as the Egyptian government.
The indictment alleges that Menendez accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash as well as gold bars and a luxury vehicle from three New Jersey businessmen. His wife, Nadine Menendez, was also charged.
Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman, allegedly promised to put the senator’s wife on his payroll for a no-show job in exchange for Menendez’s promise to facilitate weapons sales to Egypt. The indictment also claims that Hana arranged a meeting between the lawmaker and multiple Egyptian officials in a Senate office in which no staff were present.
Menendez also allegedly passed on information about the staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo via his then-girlfriend to Hana, who subsequently gave it to an Egyptian official.
Among the most significant allegations is the claim that Menendez personally ghost wrote a 2018 letter for Egyptian officials to use in lobbying efforts “to convince other U.S. Senators to release a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt.”
In a statement, Menendez denied the allegations as “baseless” and claimed they are the work of “forces behind the scenes” who have “repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” an apparent reference to previous corruption charges against the senator that resulted in a mistrial in 2017. (The Senate Ethics Committee, for its part, found that Menendez had broken the law and “severely admonished” him in a rare public censure.)
“Those behind the campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator and serve with honor and distinction,” Menendez argued. “Even worse, they see me as an obstacle in the way of their broader political goals.”
Despite the fiery statement, Menendez will reportedly step down from his role as chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to WNBC, NBC’s New York affiliate.
The allegations come amid growing concerns about the extent of foreign influence peddling in the United States. As Nick Cleveland-Stout reported in RS last year, numerous former officials have gone on to lobby for Egypt, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) former chief of staff. A 2020 report by Ben Freeman of the Quincy Institute found foreign countries had given at least $175 million to U.S. think tanks.
Freeman, who recently testified before Congress about Saudi influence campaigns in the United States, described the accusations as “deeply troubling.”
“If the indictment is accurate, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was selling U.S. foreign policy for cash and gold,” he told RS. “This was all allegedly happening at the same time as serious concerns were being raised — including by Menendez’s colleagues in the Senate — about continuing to provide U.S. military assistance to Egypt given the regime’s abysmal human rights record and its anti-democratic turn.”
Freeman noted that the allegations go further than most cases of foreign influence, which often center around whether an American citizen failed to register as an agent under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.
But the accusations Menendez faces go further, leading government watchdogs like Citizens for Ethics in Washington (CREW) to call for his immediate resignation.
“With these latest revelations, it’s time for Senator Menendez to resign,” CREW President Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “The stain of corruption continuously taints Menendez.”
The alleged work on behalf of Egypt is noteworthy given the lawmaker’s long-standing public stances in favor of promoting democracy abroad and holding autocratic regimes accountable for their excesses. His response to the accusations mentions that he has “stood steadfast against dictators around the world,” noting his work on Iran, Cuba, and Turkey but pointedly leaving out Egypt from the list.
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