By Jack Detsch September 12, 2018
US President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the 2015 Iran nuclear pact has left Iranian-American supporters and detractors alike scrambling to adapt to a new reality.
Those who favor engagement are back to square one, desperate to salvage what they can from what they had considered a major diplomatic achievement by the Barack Obama administration. Regime change advocates, meanwhile, are rejoicing, even as they're left guessing along with everyone else just how serious the tough-talking president and the Republican-controlled Congress are about taking on Tehran.
“Regime change in Iran is within reach as never before,” Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), declared at her group's annual gathering near Paris in June. “The wheels of change have started turning.”
Her comments come after Trump reimposed nuclear sanctions in May, in effect withdrawing from the deal even as Iran and the other five parties continue to respect its conditions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his part has said Iran may yet abide by the deal's constraints on its nuclear activity, if it can reap promised economic benefits.
The State Department declared in June that major importers such as India, Turkey, Japan and several European countries must stop buying Iranian oil by November, when most US sanctions snap back. US penalties on trade with Iran’s automotive and metals sectors resume in August.
“This is a campaign of imposing pressure,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s director of policy planning, told reporters in July. “We are not looking to grant licenses or waivers broadly on the reimposition of sanctions, because we believe pressure is critical to achieve our national security objectives.”
A month later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Hook as the head of a new Iran Action Group to coordinate US policy againbst Tehran.
The Trump push has left deal supporters such as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) trying to figure out how to shield Iran's remaining trading partners from getting hit with US sanctions.
“The plan is to try to forestall these [US] actions until after the  midterms if at all possible,” said NIAC Vice President Jamal Abdi, who took the helm of the organization from founder Trita Parsi in August. “Keep Iran in the deal long enough so there’s a body in Congress to rein Trump in.”
NIAC’s revenues, the bulk of it from donor contributions, fell after the Obama administration inked the nuclear deal, from $1.4 million in 2015 to $880,000 in 2016. The group's expenditures also fell after the deal was passed, from $1.5 million in 2015 to $1 million the following year. With Trump threatening to nix the pact, the group’s 2017 spending was on the rise again, Abdi told Al-Monitor.
The NCRI's US lobbying operations by contrast have seen a continuous decline over the past few years, according to public disclosures, from a high of $812,000 in 2014 down to $503,000 last year.
The council, an umbrella group that bills itself as the main democratic opposition to Iran's theocratic regime, is dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which was a US-designated terrorist group until a few years ago.
Much of its lobbying effort has focused on the safe transfer of hundreds of opposition members from a camp in Iraq to Albania, a process that was completed in 2016. Influential Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who died last month, traveled to Albania in April 2017 to meet with MEK representatives.
The NCRI often attracts a bipartisan cross-section of former US officials and sitting lawmakers at its rallies and events thanks to its generous speaking fees and clout with Iranian-American voters. Its real impact on policy, however, is harder to gauge.
Despite the Trump administration's anti-Iran rhetoric, the group had to settle for informal Trump advisers Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich at its annual Paris conference in June. Meanwhile, newly minted national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime NCRI backer who was paid $40,000 to attend the event when he was out of government last year, spent the day appearing on Washington's Sunday news shows.
“For the administration to send an official representative, I think that would be just a bad news story for them if they’re invested in the MEK,” said Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism during the Obama administration. “And if they’re not, it even makes less sense.”
Meanwhile, the Organization of Iranian American Communities, which is close to the MEK, made mixed progress on its efforts to have Congress recognize Iran's 1988 massacre of opposition figures. The House passed legislation in May denouncing the slaughter, but declined to single out the MEK as its main victim.
Indeed, both Congress and the Trump administration seem to be prioritizing the financial pressure campaign rather than organizing a political opposition to Tehran.
“There’s clearly a lot of money being spent trying to make the implication that the Iranian government is on the brink of collapse,” Abdi told Al-Monitor. “I don’t know of any serious efforts that have come together in terms of the lobbying.”
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