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May 18, 2017 3:52 pm

Former Obama Officials, Led by John Kerry, Launch PR Offensive Against New Iran Sanctions Legislation

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Former US Secretary of State John Kerry speaking with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, July 2015. Photo: US State Department via Wikimedia Commons.

As lawmakers prepare for an imminent debate over a new bill pressing further sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile development, human rights violations and other abuses, former senior Obama administration officials have mobilized in an effort to oppose it.

A draft of the legislation submitted by a bipartisan group of senators, entitled the “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 ,” instructs the US government to “impose sanctions with respect to Iran in relation to Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for acts of international terrorism, and violations of human rights, and for other purposes.” The legislation would further mandate the Treasury, Defense and State Departments, along with intelligence agencies, to report to Congress every two years on their strategy to counter destabilizing “Iranian activities and threats that directly threaten the United States and key allies in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.”

While the legislation would not change the status of the 2015 nuclear deal — to which the US remains formally committed — ex-Obama administration officials are insisting that its passage could lead to the burial of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  (JCPOA) implemented in January 2016, which they argue has effectively blocked Iran’s weaponization of its nuclear program.

Among the Obama administration-linked groups that have embarked on a public relations campaign to counter the legislation is the Ploughshares Fund, which last week distributed a letter to congressional staffers attacking the bill. As the Weekly Standard noted, “Ploughshares came under fire last May for giving hundreds and thousands of dollars to media outlets and fueling what Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes admitted was an ‘echo chamber.'”

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J Street — a progressive Jewish organization that styles itself “pro-peace, pro-Israel” — has also joined the push. In an email to supporters, J Street warned that “Congress is considering legislation that risks killing the Iran deal.” Although the legislation “has the worthy goal of putting pressure on Iran to combat some of the truly despicable activities of its authoritarian regime,” J Street said, “the bill — as currently written — is so broad in its language that many experts see it as undermining or even violating the nuclear deal President Obama achieved to block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons.”

Arguably the most important organization involved in the campaign is recently-launched Diplomacy Works, whose mission is focused on its contention that there are “few better examples of the value of diplomacy than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).” The organization’s Advisory Council is chaired by John Kerry, the former secretary of state who was one of the key architects of the JCPOA.

The remainder of the Diplomacy Works Advisory Council is entirely composed of former Obama administration officials, all of them prominent in foreign policy. They include Jen Psaki, an ex-White House communications director; Robert Malley, an ex-White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region; and Michèle Flournoy, an ex-former under secretary of defense for policy.

Some Middle East experts are puzzled by the intensity of the legislation’s opponents, arguing that the Trump administration has followed Obama’s Iran policy more consistently than they may care to admit.

“One of the few things Trump spoke pragmatically about as a candidate was the Iran deal,” David Daoud — a research analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank — told The Algemeiner. “He said that he would enforce it and make the deal better. He hasn’t ripped up the deal or launched a military attack on Iran. I don’t see a big break in continuity between what he’s doing and what the Obama administration did.”

Daoud pointed out that the Obama administration did not shy away entirely from sanctions against Iran and its subordinates. In October 2016, for example, the Treasury Department introduced sanctions against senior operatives of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization funded and controlled by Iran. And on the eve of the JCPOA’s implementation in January 2016, the Obama administration described Iran’s ballistic missile program — a primary concern of the proposed legislation — as a “significant threat to regional and global security.”

At that time, the Obama administration’s overall policy was summarized by Adam Szubin — then the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence — who stated “that the United States will vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — including those related to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile program.”

Despite that statement, Szubin is among the opponents of the new legislation, crafting the email criticizing the bill that was distributed by the Ploughshares Fund to congressional staffers.

Given the shared concerns of both the Obama and Trump administrations regarding Iranian destabilization efforts, Daoud said, “this seems like an optics issue” for the groups opposing it.

“It’s Trump doing it, not Obama, and because he is much more vocal about Iran’s abuses, that gives the impression that he’s on the war path,” Daoud said.

Another Middle East analyst spoken to by The Algemeiner commented that the legislation’s opponents were effectively urging Congress to bow to Iranian threats of non-compliance with the JCPOA in the event of further sanctions.

“The very same people who said we could go to Congress to push back on issues outside of the JCPOA are now saying we should avoid applying any pressure through Congress,” the analyst said.

J Street and Diplomacy Works did not immediately respond to The Algemeiner’s requests for comments.

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