In 2019, the Trump administration took the controversial step of listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an ideological branch of the Iranian military, as a foreign terrorist organization. The designation, an apparent poison pill to block further diplomacy with Iran, has become a major obstacle in negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump abrogated in 2018.
Though the domestic political pressure on the Biden administration against delisting has been widely discussed — with fears of Republicans campaigning against the move and pro-Israel forces roundly opposing it — few have noted the effect and breadth of the campaign to place and keep the IRGC on the terror rolls.
Documents, including rafts of public disclosure filings and a hacked email from a Washington diplomat, reveal a highly active foreign influence operation over the past five years to blanket Washington with messages supporting confrontation with Iran and targeting the IRGC with sanctions and inclusion on the terrorist list.
Since at least 2015, a variety of communications consultants, law firms, and lobbyists working for foreign governments — primarily Iranian regional rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — produced a steady stream of tweets, talking points, press releases, and reports warning about the dangers of the IRGC and supporting the foreign terrorist organization, or FTO, designation.
"All you need to know about what a politicized cudgel the FTO list has become is seeing the UAE and Saudi Arabia — responsible for some of the most heinous terror against civilians in Yemen — lobbying to get the IRGC on the FTO and keep them listed," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the advocacy group Democracy for the Arab World Now. "We should not be allowing foreign government lobbyists to buy influence on important national security policies, like the FTO designation of a government we want to reach a critical nuclear deal with.”
The previously unreported hacked email sent by a UAE diplomat lays bare an attempt by a foreign interest to influence the U.S. government’s approach to the IRGC. In the email, drawn from a trove released in 2017 by a group calling itself Global Leaks, UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al-Otaiba, one of the most influential foreign diplomats in Washington, messages with a reporter about the listing. The email released by GlobalLeaks shows that then-Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon wrote to Otaiba on February 3, 2017, asking: “You hear anything about the [Trump] administration considering designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization?”
In the email chain, Otaiba responded within minutes: “No idea where they are on decision making, but I have made the suggestion to several people.”
The UAE Embassy declined to comment on the purported email, which Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept were unable to separately authenticate. Otaiba never specified in the exchange who he “made the suggestion to.”
At the same time as the Global Leaks exchange between Otaiba and Solomon, an army of paid agents for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Iranian dissident group Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, were bombarding congressional staffers, think tanks, and the State Department with messages emphasizing the dangers of the IRGC.
On February 14, 2017, the National Council of Resistance of Iran — the political wing of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a group with little support inside Iran but has close ties with Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies — held a press conference about the IRGC’s “terrorist training centers” and held a March 8, 2017 “panel discussion on the rise of the IRGC financial empire.”
Between February and May 2017, the group’s U.S. leadership acted as sources regarding the IRGC for a host of outlets mostly on the right but also including mainstream outlets like the Associated Press, according to National Council of Resistance of Iran's disclosure under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a law requiring agents of foreign principals to periodically report on their activities.
Other Gulf rivals of Iran were also paying communications firms and lobbyists to circulate reports and white papers denouncing the IRGC, according to disclosures. In May 2017, Qorvis Communications, working on behalf of Saudi Arabia, circulated a “summary: counterterrorism white paper” about “Saudi Arabia and counterterrorism” that repeatedly referred to the IRGC’s backing of Houthi rebels who the Saudis and UAE were fighting in Yemen. (None of the registered foreign agents in this article responded to requests for comment.)
Another communications firm representing Saudi Arabia, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, circulated a “fact sheet” defending the Saudi war effort in Yemen — which has been denounced by human rights advocates — as well as a report claiming that the “insurgency against Yemen’s central government has been aided by the financial and operational support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.”
The steady drumbeat of IRGC-related informational materials from UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia continued with the Trump administration’s 2017 imposition of sanctions on the IRGC, a move welcomed by foreign agents in Washington.
The MEK’s political wing celebrated the move in a press release. The UAE, for its part, celebrated the Trump administration’s new aggressive policy toward Iran in a press release circulated by Hagir Elawad & Associates, a law firm working for the UAE embassy, that endorsed the move.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy put a particular emphasis on targeting the IRGC. The hawkish approach culminated in the 2018 U.S. abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, the 2019 listing of the IRGC as a terror group, and the early 2020 assassination of IRGC commander Qassim Suleimani. Throughout it all, “maximum pressure” won praise from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The federal filings that individuals and groups representing foreign interests made reflected the intensity of advocacy on the issue. The informational forms disclosing communications and materials distributed by foreign agents working for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the MEK’s political wing contained 325 mentions of the IRGC between 2017 and 2020.
The lucrative foreign influence campaign has continued into the post-Trump, post-“maximum pressure” era.
In June 2021, Saudi agents at Tripp Baird’s Off Hill Strategies sent 23 Hill staffers a tweet from Blinken declaring, “Today, we designated a network of front companies and intermediaries that support the Houthis in coordination with the IRGC-QF” — a reference to the Yemeni rebel group and the IRGC’s clandestine operations branch, the Quds Force.
Following the Biden administration’s February delisting of the Houthis from the foreign terror organization list, Emiratiagents circulated a report by the UAE Embassy on “Returning the Houthis to the U.S. terrorist list,” citing the rebels’ alleged close ties to the IRGC.
The pace of Foreign Agents Registration Act-disclosed activity by foreign agents for UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the MEK’s political wing appears to have slowed as the Biden administration pushed to reenter the nuclear deal. The shift came at the same time as tensions grew between the White House and Gulf states on a variety of issues ranging from OPEC oil output to sanctions against Russia in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
At least one entity with financial links to the UAE and Saudi Arabia — though not a registered foreign agent — is already pushing back on the potential delisting of the IRGC. The Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank “dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East,” whose largest donor is the UAE Embassy and also receives support from Saudi Aramco, published a report this month concluding:
As the U.S. administration assesses whether to delist the IRGC as an FTO, the nature of the Guard reveals that it is not a conventional state armed force and should not be treated as such. The IRGC is an ideological organization that shares key characteristics with other designated Islamist organizations, including its quest for an expansionist Islamic state, a global Islamic order, forceful imposition of sharia law (Shi’a interpretation), militaristic concept of jihad, and anti-American and anti-Semitic ideology.
In a statement, MEI media relations manager Rachel Dooley said donations do not affect the group’s work. “MEI retains full intellectual independence for itself and its scholars, and no funder has any editorial say, nor are any funders consulted in the authoring and/or publishing of any articles, including this one,” Dooley said. “The authors produced this article independently and pitched it to the Middle East Institute, which publishes a wide range of voices and perspectives on regional policy and affairs. The article was accepted after passing MEI’s internal review and fact-checking process. As is the case for all of MEI’s publications, the views in the piece are the authors’ own and do not represent a position of the Institute.”
MEI discloses its donors on its website but does not disclose the potential conflict of interests in MEI materials that touch on its foreign government funders.
For now, the pressure campaign against the IRGC in Washington appears to be winning out. The United States has so far ruled out delisting the group without further concessions from Iran. The Iranians say such a position is at odds with the agreement that was struck in 2015 because it asks for more concessions from Iran to win the economic relief the country already bargained to get.
Nonetheless, the very discussion of the potential delisting of the IRGC is a threat to a central achievement of the “maximum pressure” campaign praised by the Gulf states and the MEK. If a deal to delist the IRGC suddenly seems more likely, their registered agents in Washington are sure to ramp up their campaign again.
Eli Clifton is a senior advisor at the Quincy Institute and Investigative Journalist at Large at Responsible Statecraft. He reports on money in politics and U.S. foreign policy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the intent of the United States to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, Apr 8, 2019 (Photo: State Department)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.