Over the past decade, probably no issue has figured more prominently in debate about policy toward Iran than the Iranian nuclear program and the worry that the program could lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon. And no pressure group has been more active and relentless in beating a drum about the awfulness of Iran than the misleadingly named Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Thus, of some interest — and a reflection of the true motives and objective of a group such as FDD — is an article published last month by two FDD staff (including the organization’s chief executive, Mark Dubowitz) that argued it would be better if Iran enriched uranium to the 90 percent level — the purity needed to make a nuclear weapon — than for Iranian enrichment to remain at lower levels if that entailed a diplomatic agreement that might include any form of U.S. sanctions relief.
The immediate diplomacy to which the FDD writers were reacting involves Iran and the United States evidently exploring an informal understanding in which Tehran would freeze its nuclear activities in return for Washington freezing its already extensive economic sanctions regime against Iran.
Such an understanding would be no substitute for a comprehensive agreement such as the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had kept Iran’s enrichment of uranium at a small fraction of what it is now until the Trump administration abandoned the accord. But a freeze-for-freeze understanding would be a beneficial development from the standpoint both of nuclear nonproliferation and of keeping a lid on tensions in the region that might otherwise spiral out of control.
No announcements have been made by either Washington or Tehran about any such understanding having been reached. But recent reports suggest that Iran has slowed its enrichment of uranium to the 60 percent level and may also have blended down some of its stockpile to lower levels. Again, this would be a welcome development from the standpoint of keeping alive the possibility of a comprehensive agreement in the name of nuclear nonproliferation as well as controlling overall tensions with Iran.
Controlling tension with Iran is the last thing that FDD wants. It wants to increase that tension, and Iran enriching uranium to weapons grade certainly would do that. For FDD, the objective of promoting maximum loathing, isolation, and sanctioning of Iran, and keeping tension with Tehran at a fever pitch, takes priority over almost everything else, including nuclear nonproliferation.
Understanding this warped set of priorities requires a look at what FDD is all about. It began as an organization with a Hebrew name whose purpose, according to its application to the Internal Revenue Service for tax exempt status, was “to provide education to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.” The organization later adopted its current cover name, but what it is dedicated to defending are not democracies but rather the policies of the Israeli Likud party, which for most of the past few decades have been policies of the Israeli government.
A centerpiece of those policies is to promote hatred and distrust of Iran, to stoke tension with Iran, and to oppose all diplomacy with Iran. The purposes this posture has served Israeli governments — of varying shades of right-wing coloration — have included the weakening of a regional rival for influence, the undercutting of any U.S. rapprochement with Tehran, the sustaining of a bête noire on whom all troubles of the region can be blamed, and the diverting of international attention to Iran as the “real” problem of the region and away from Israel’s own behavior.
Prior Israeli governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu talked up the nuclear issue at least as much as anyone else when that was the scariest-sounding anti-Iran issue handy. Then, when the JCPOA came into force, effectively closing all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon and draining Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb that he had displayed to the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu never acknowledged that the JCPOA did exactly that. Instead, he shifted most of his rhetoric to other “nefarious” Iranian behavior while trying to extract some mileage from possible nuclear activity that had occurred years earlier and had already been overtaken by the JCPOA and other events. The Israeli government cheered Trump’s scrapping of the JCPOA, which led directly to the much more advanced Iranian nuclear program we see today.
FDD not only cheered Trump’s reneging on the JCPOA, an agreement that had successfully capped the Iranian program; it privately pushed the Trump administration to pursue regime change in Iran. In all respects involving Iran, FDD has followed the Israeli government’s lead. The article that mentioned 90 percent enrichment appeared in Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper that the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bankrolled. Dubowitz’s co-author, Jacob Nagel, besides being a fellow at FDD, is also a former aide to Netanyahu. To be precise, what Dubowitz and Nagel were saying to their Israeli audience in this piece was that 90 percent enrichment would be “better for Israel” than any understanding or agreement with Iran.
That contention is one of the article’s several fallacious aspects. Another is the assertion that there is “no real technical variance” between 60 percent enrichment and 90 percent enrichment. Wrong: nuclear weapons can be made with uranium enriched to 90 percent or above, but not with 60 percent. Yet another is the false reference, in the course of criticizing the Biden administration, to “almost three years of a failed Iran policy of maximum concessions.” In fact, Biden has kept in place the great majority of the mountain of sanctions left by the Trump administration and has even imposed additional sanctions. Whatever nefarious Iranian behavior has occurred during those three years has been under the mostly unchanged “maximum pressure” posture of Trump.
As for what is “better for Israel,” as many senior retired Israeli security officials have observed, keeping Iran’s nuclear program restricted through an agreement like the JCPOA is obviously better for Israeli security than leaving it unrestricted. The only thing an escalation of Iranian uranium enrichment would be “better” for is the impact of Israeli government rhetoric that constantly strives to direct international attention to Iran rather than to the West Bank or anything else Israel is doing.
Those determined to oppose any diplomacy with Iran have most recently taken aim at a prisoner swap deal that will free five Americans whom Iran unjustly detained and will include the unfreezing of certain Iranian assets frozen in banks in South Korea. The assets, which represent money that has always been Iran’s, will not even be going back to Iran but instead to Qatar, from which it will be spent on sanctions-exempted humanitarian items such as medicine and food.
Any unbiased look at this agreement would have difficulty finding serious reasons to object to it. As Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group aptly notes, “If you are against this deal, you are against Americans coming back home, and you are against Iranian people having access to food and medicine.”
But the deal is a product of diplomacy with Iran and at least slightly reduces tensions with Iran, so FDD automatically opposes it, as do some others for whom Israel is a lodestar or who, for partisan reasons, oppose any significant accomplishment of the Biden administration.
Along with groundless cries of “ransom,” an argument from FDD and other opponents that sounds like it might be serious is that funds are fungible and the more relief there is for Iranians getting food and medicine, the more that Tehran will have to spend on shadier activities. This argument assumes that the humanitarian needs of people in Iran are not really unmet needs because the Iranian government already is meeting them with resources it controls.
That assumption conflicts with the observations of those whose job is to monitor humanitarian crises. The assumption that the Iranian government currently is paying for food and medicine with money it could easily switch to other purposes also tends to conflict with the image of Iran that FDD tirelessly promotes as a “brutal regime” that is bent on causing trouble abroad and “cares more about its own survival than it cares about the welfare of the Iranian people.”
The fungibility argument also conjures up an image in which the commander of the Revolutionary Guard calls the Iranian finance minister to ask, “How many rials do we have to spend on nefarious activity this month?” and in which Iran regularly maxes out the nefarious activity budget. There is no evidence that Iranian decision-making works anything like that.
If it did, then we would have seen an increase in the nefarious activity after the partial sanctions relief that was part of the entry into force of the JCPOA in 2015, and a decrease after Trump slammed on even more sanctions starting in 2018. But we saw no such thing. If anything, the pattern of Iranian conduct in the region has been the opposite, with some of the most aggressive Iranian actions coming after Trump launched the economic warfare known as maximum pressure.
This is one of the respects in which opponents of diplomacy ignore what is now several years of experience of living with and without the JCPOA, and which demonstrate how much worse the years of maximum pressure, bereft of any diplomacy with Iran, have been, most obviously regarding the nuclear issue but also along other dimensions. The ostensible arguments voiced by the opponents of diplomacy with Iran need to be refuted, which they can easily be by referring to the record of the past several years.
But a disingenuous opponent such as FDD also needs to be called to account for the fundamental dishonesty of what it is doing.
The dishonesty extends first of all to participation in debates that are supposed to be about what is best for U.S. interests, but in which the objectives that the participant is in fact serving are those of a foreign government. Part of the fault for this is with media that repeatedly use FDD people as sources in stories about Iran without identifying the nature and objectives of the group.
The dishonesty extends as well to what FDD is trying to achieve. An honest debate with that organization or anyone who shares its objective would address the question, “Is endless, severe tension and conflict with Iran, and a forgoing of any diplomacy that engages Iran, good or bad for U.S. interests?” The reasons it is bad include, among other things, physical jeopardy to U.S. personnel in the region, overall instability to which the tension contributes, the missing of opportunities for diplomacy to advance U.S. interests, and the risk of escalation into even more destructive and violent confrontations.
Anyone who manipulates the issue of nuclear nonproliferation in the service of some other objective — especially an objective such as serving the rhetorical, attention-diverting needs of a foreign regime — deserves to be roundly condemned for doing so. Nuclear weapons proliferation is too serious a matter to be toyed with that way. It is highly irresponsible to toy with it to the extent of suggesting that it might be a good thing for Iran to start producing weapons-grade uranium.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
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.”
keep readingShow less
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.
keep readingShow less
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%.