A Firm Response at Sea Will Help, Not Hinder, Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

Aug. 13 2021

On July 30, an Iranian drone attacked the Mercer Street—an oil tanker operated by an Israeli-owned company—killing one British and one Romanian citizen, thus escalating Tehran’s ongoing clandestine maritime war with the Jewish state. As the “ultimate guarantor of freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans,” the U.S. “shares with other countries responsibility for protecting this essential principle,” writes Robert Satloff. Yet the Biden administration is likely reluctant to retaliate, out of fear that doing so will derail the already stalled talks to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement. Such thinking, Satloff explains, gets things exactly backwards:

Tehran and its proxies have been aggressively testing the White House—both with attacks on shipping in the Gulf and via proxy attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. targets in Iraq—without learning precisely where Washington draws a line. The most common U.S. response so far has been to hit pro-Iranian militia sites in northeast Syria, which sends a message to Tehran that the United States is avoiding conflict, not deterring it. Until that message is clarified, Iran is likely to continue ratcheting up its attacks.

An effective U.S. response to the Mercer Street attack . . . would be a far cry from pinprick action against proxy groups and mere public declarations, both of which only invite further Iranian testing. . . . [A firmer] response would bolster deterrence [and] signal to America’s regional allies that shrinking the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East does not mean Washington is shirking its role as a guarantor of international norms, including the all-important freedom of maritime navigation. And of special concern to the Biden administration: an effective response would have the benefit of addressing one of the . . . reasons for the impasse in [nuclear] negotiations.

Some in the Biden administration will make the opposite case—that an effective reply to Iran’s deadly shipping attack will spook the Tehran regime, confirm to the supreme leader and his new president that the United States is a hostile power not to be trusted, and even fuel an escalation of violence and confrontation. This is a legitimate concern. Far more likely, however, is that Iran will view U.S. inaction as an invitation for further testing, itself raising the prospect of even more lethal attacks than the one on the Mercer Street and further poisoning the potential for diplomacy.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Naval strategy, U.S. Foreign policy


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy