President Barack Obama has complained multiple times about nefarious lobbies lined up against the Iran deal. Alongside the president, many proponents of the Iran deal negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry argue that there can be no honest reason for the unease and outright opposition to the deal among some politicians other than nefarious money from lobbyists who want war or, at the very least, want to maintain the tense status quo between Tehran and Washington.
It is a theme supporters of the Iran deal have picked up. Trita Parsi, an Iranian-Swede who leads the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and once declared that everything he does, he does for Iran, marked Senator Harry Reid’s endorsement of the deal by declaring it a defeat for big money, a silly statement given Reid’s own partisanship and acceptance of myriad campaign contributions from lobbying groups. “The Iran Project,” likewise reported, “In efforts to sway Iran debate, big-money donors are heard.” The news media has played along. “Big Money and Ads Clash Over Iran Nuclear Deal,” USA Today reported.
The irony, however, is that many of the staunchest proponents of the Iran nuclear deal feed from the same trough of cash supplied by the Ploughshares Fund, a multimillion-dollar group which defines itself as a foundation seeking nuclear disarmament but which has, for several years, taken a consistently apologetic line toward Iran. Now, too often analysts throw around discussion of funding to cast aspersions on those who disagree with them in the policy debate. Often, this is nonsense. Few analysts on either the left or the right are blank slates that simply follow the money. Those staffing NIAC, for example, have always sought an end to sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many had worked for Atieh Bahar, a Tehran-based consultancy close to former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are not chameleons, changing their stripes to match their funders. When NIAC policy director Reza Marashi, an Atieh Bahar alum, worked for the State Department during the George W. Bush years, he was not pro-democracy agenda, but was understood to be sympathetic to an embrace rather than isolation of Iran. Indeed, his persistent questions about the recipients of U.S. aid inside Iran raised security concerns. Likewise, when NIAC received a couple hundred thousand dollars from the National Endowment for Democracy, Trita channeled it to organizations close to the Iranian government.
Not everyone is so ideologically consistent, however, or honest when it comes to the issues about which they profess objectivity. This has certainly been the case-in-point when it comes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by Secretary John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif. Usually, an indicator of a flawed agreement is its failure to win bipartisan support. The opposition party, in such cases, is usually not to blame; rather, partisan votes on international agreements usually historically suggest an attempt to leverage party loyalty over national security. In the case of the JCPOA, to reach agreement, Kerry shredded at least a dozen redlines. The idea that the JCPOA represents the best possible agreement and the toughest peacetime verification regimen is demonstrably false: After all, both South Africa and Libya subjected themselves to far greater and intrusive mechanisms. Then why is it that groups like the Arms Control Association seem to swear by the agreement and have even attested to the thoroughness of the agreement before its details were even negotiated? Here, the 2014 Ploughshares Fund report may provide a clue. The Ploughshares Fund describes itself as “support[ing] the smartest minds and most effective organizations to reduce nuclear stockpiles, prevent new nuclear states, and increase global security.” What it has done in recent years, however, is to organize and fund a broad-based lobby to exculpate the world’s worst violators of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in pursuit of a new progressive agenda. Most recently, its money has come to play in cobbling together ostensibly independent support for the Iran deal.
For example, Ploughshares gave the Arms Control Association $210,000 for “influencing…US policy toward Iran,” and then another $25,000 for an expert workshop and press briefings. It gave the Atlantic Council, a think tank that has garnered a reputation as Washington’s most mercantile, pay-to-play academic institution, $80,000 to support the Iran Task Force and another $130,000 for the South Asian Program. In effect, Ploughshares pays the salary of the Atlantic Council’s chief Iran hand that has consistently amplified Tehran’s own policy positions in her analysis and programming. It funded the Center for New American Security to give “boot camps” to Congressional staffers “on the nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” in other words, to lobby them. It underwrote the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s efforts “to support an integrated lobbying strategy to build support for pragmatic approaches to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.” It gave the left-wing group J Street $100,000 to “educate” on behalf of an Iran deal. The National Iranian American Council? Over $150,000 for its advocacy on behalf of the Iran deal, and that doesn’t include money given individually to its staff. National Security Network? $75,000 to “educate media and policymakers about policy options to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” The National Security Network’s home page proclaims its dedication to “progressive” policy solutions, so the notion that this is anything other than a political reward seems a bit rich. Recently, blogger Jeffrey Lewis has criticized and downplayed the Associated Press’ revelation about a side deal between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would essentially gut verification by allowing Iran to test itself. What Lewis did not acknowledge was the $75,000 his home institution received from Ploughshares, according to the Fund’s 2014 report. The Aspen Institute also received Ploughshares money to education Congressmen and senior staffers about Iran policy options, again, effectively to lobby them. In addition, the Fund gave $75,000 to Gulf-2000, a listserv run by former Carter Iran hand and “October Surprise” conspiracy theorist Gary Sick. While ostensibly non-partisan, in recent years Gulf-2000 has become a “Journolist”-style clearing house to feed pro-Iran talking points to journalists. Sick promotes one line and often uses his prerogative as moderator to censor and exclude arguments and information that may contradict his increasingly radical beliefs.
Nor is all this lobbying for a policy favorable to the Islamic Republic new. In 2010, Ploughshares gave National Public Radio $150,000 in what appeared to be a pay-to-play scheme to get Cirincione and his grantees on air
, an arrangement that only ended after its public exposure (UPDATE: Plougshare’s 2013 Annual Report lists an additional $100,000 for National Public Radio). When Chuck Hagel — long a proponent of at-any-cost rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran — sat on the board of Ploughshares prior to his stint Defense Secretary, a tenure that even his ideological allies would like to forget, he channeled more than $2 million to support groups, many of which were led by former staffers, which sought to downplay Iran’s nuclear work and normalize ties with Tehran. More recently, Ploughshares has sponsored conference calls to rally support for the Obama administration and ensure a joint strategy among its grantees that, unfortunately, has turned on targeting the Jewish community.
So, in short, Ploughshares spread millions of dollars around to pro-administration groups to support whatever Iran deal came out of Vienna. To criticize the Iran deal would be to risk a significant source of funding — double digits percentages of their total budget in most cases — of these various groups. Seldom did these groups acknowledge the support provided by Ploughshares. The Ploughshares Fund’s strategy has amplified its success by cultivating both the non-partisan label of groups like the Arms Control Association, National Iranian American Council, or Atlantic Council, while using them to amplify each other’s similar messages. Hence, various organizations hosted one-sided panels in the wake of the Iran deal announcement with multiple Ploughshares grantees without acknowledging their funding from the same pot. For example, on March 26, the Arms Control Association sponsored an event featuring the National Iranian American Council. J Street, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation are all Ploughshares grantees.
President Obama is absolutely correct. Big money is seeking to sway the debate about the Iran deal. I personally have very little contact with AIPAC — I spoke twice at their conference on issues relating to the Arab world, never on Iran — in my 16 years in Washington, far less than, for example, than left-of-center pundit Peter Beinart. But, at least when AIPAC seeks to make its case, it does so openly; it does not pretend to be something it is not. What Ploughshares has done (and very successfully as well) is to fund myriad proxies who will push similar lines in concert with each other and Ploughshares, seeking credibility from their supposed objectivity, when the reality suggests they are anything but. When Obama warns of dark money and nefarious lobbies, it seems increasingly he is projecting.
Ploughshares: The Money Behind the Iran Deal
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Hair immolation isn't a strategy.
The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.
Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.
The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.
Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”
Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?
Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.
Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.
Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.
A post-ISIS Potsdam Conference.
Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.
As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.
On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.
“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.
By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.
The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.
Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.
The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.
Old obsessions die hard.
On June 18, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched missiles into Syria in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb the previous week. While these missiles appear to have caused no casualties, Iranian officials were clear that their target went far beyond the Islamic State. According to the Tehran Times:
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace unit, hailed the missile raids, saying any more evil act against Iran will result in “costly consequences.” “Our enemies should know that Tehran is not London or Paris,” Hajizadeh stated, a reference to the European capitals coming under numerous terrorist attacks over the past years. Iran vowed quick revenge after ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the parliament and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini on June 7, killing 18 and injuring at least 56. In a statement released after the attacks, the IRGC vowed avenge, saying, “The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered.” Also, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, head of the Iranian armed forces, pledged “unforgettable lessons” to terrorists and their backers after the Tehran assault. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “This was just the beginning of the revenge. Harsher slap is underway.” Rezaei also called the missile attacks “the message of Iran’s authority” to “the supporters of terrorism.”
Ahmad Majidyar, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute and a talented Iran-watcher, noted that Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Netanyahu, this was just the message of Zolfiqar (missile); the message of Shahab and Zelzal is much stronger!” before erasing his tweet.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry has recently been making the rounds lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, for example, he traveled to Norway where he sat on a podium with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There, both criticized the Gulf Arab state and the current U.S. administration. In Kerry’s quest for the prize, he either lied about U.S. allies or leaked highly classified intelligence by detailing the (still-classified) contents of conversations. Either way, he sought to depict himself as a peacemaker when, in reality, he emboldened and resourced the main source of instability in the region. In his quest to secure an accord and to cement his own personal legacy at any strategic cost, he watered down language about Iran’s ballistic missile program. This provided Iran with cover, or at least enough legal ambiguity, to pursue its ballistic missile program.
Kerry and his team knew Iran’s aggressive intent but did not care. Numerous Iranian officials—including those surrounding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have pledged to develop and even use nuclear weapons. It was Hassan Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who managed, resourced, and oversaw Iran’s covert nuclear program to develop such weaponry. Indeed, he subsequently bragged about it.
Despite Iran lobbyists’ efforts to suggest that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel’s should be wiped off the map, pictures from Tehran and Iran’s own official translations tell another story. When Major-General Hassan Moghadam died in an explosion at a missile laboratory and test facility in 2011, the Iranian press reported that his last will and testament asked that his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.” A year ago, Iran tested to ballistic missiles inscribed in Hebrew with calls for Israel’s destruction.
Iran’s immediate target might have been the Islamic State, but its ideological goal remains eradication of Israel. That the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards tweeted acknowledgment of such goal should not be as easily erased as his tweet. After all, Iran deal or not, it is the Revolutionary Guards and not Zarif who are in charge of the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.