Iran threatens Washington think-tank, move likely to further isolate regime

After Iran’s threat to FDD, it is likely that Washington think-tanks will re-evaluate their relationship with the Iranian government.
Saturday 31/08/2019
A 2018 file picture shows FDD’s CEO Mark Dubowitz (R) presenting former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley with the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Statesmanship Award. (FDD)
In the crosshairs. A 2018 file picture shows FDD’s CEO Mark Dubowitz (R) presenting former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley with the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Statesmanship Award. (FDD)

WASHINGTON - Tehran’s blacklisting of and thinly veiled threats against the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has pushed other US think-tanks to reconsider their relationship with Iran.

Think-tanks have a unique place in influencing legislation in Washington and have long offered guidance on US-Iran relations.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has been outspoken in its opposition to the Iranian regime and is believed to have heavily influenced US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

FDD is in opposition to the JCPOA as it perceives its provisions to be lenient towards Iran and as providing it with a pathway to develop a nuclear capability. At the same time, think-tanks such as the Atlantic Council led initiatives on JCPOA and related policies and advocated for them to policymakers and voters.

On August 25, the Iranian government “blacklisted” FDD and its chief executive, Mark Dubowitz. The Iranian Foreign Ministry statement claimed FDD has been performing economic terrorism in the form of “spreading of lies, lobbyism and propaganda against Iran.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry claimed that “taking any actions by the judicial and security apparatuses against the FDD and their Iranian and non-Iranian accomplices will be considered legitimate as their actions are against Iran’s national security and the interests of Iranian people and government,” said Iran’s Mehr News Agency.

Iran premised its threats against FDD and Dubowitz on a law passed by the Iranian parliament in 2017 titled “Countering America’s Human Rights Violations and Terrorist Actions.” It allows Iran to act in defence of “national security interests.” Iran experts say such reprisals could involve its security and intelligence networks abroad, including linked terrorist organisations.

It said the FDD and “particularly its CEO Mark Dubowitz — have been and are effectively involved in a conscious and intentional manner in designing, imposing and intensifying the impacts of economic terrorism against Iran.”

In a statement, FDD said the think-tank “conducts independent research and analysis on national security issues. The Islamic Republic prohibits such freedoms at home and would like to do so abroad as well.

“FDD considers its inclusion on any list put out by the regime as a badge of honour and looks forward to the day when Americans and others can visit a free and democratic Iran.”

Dubowitz is considered an expert on Iranian policy and heads FDD’s project on Iran, sanctions and nonproliferation. Jennifer Rubin, a blogger for the Washington Post, said Dubowitz is “the architect of many of the sanctions that we have against Iran right now, who advised Congress on how to draft that legislation and has also advised Treasury and the White House on his opinions about sanctions.”

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said: “The US takes the regime’s threats seriously. We intend to hold Iran responsible for directly or indirectly compromising the safety of any American.” Ortagus referred to Iran as an “outlaw regime.”

Iran’s threat against the FDD caused the Washington think-tank community to defend the FDD. FDD is considered a right-of-centre “hawkish” think-tank but even left-leaning organisations and individuals have condemned the threat from Iran.

Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant to US President Barack Obama, posted on Twitter: “I often disagree with @FDD and @mdubowtiz” on Iran policy and strategy but if this reporting is correct and Iran is threatening any US think-tank or person with action by its “security apparatuses it is completely unacceptable.”

Ilan Goldenberg, the Middle East security director at the Centre for a New American Security, tweeted” “Don’t always agree with @FDD and @mdubowitz but threats by Iran’s government against a Washington think-tank are completely unacceptable.”

Mark Fitzpatrick, former executive director of the International Institute for Security Studies, tweeted” “Hey, #Iran: as much as I disagree with @FDD, your unadulterated call for attacking them (‘actions by security apparatuses’) makes me rise in solidarity.”

After Iran’s threat to FDD, it is likely that Washington think-tanks will re-evaluate their relationship with the Iranian government, which could affect US policy on Iran.

Suzanne Maloney, the deputy director of Foreign Policy programme at the Brookings Institute, commented, also on Twitter: “Given these risks & today’s threats aimed at a US NGO & its staff, all academic & research organisations should seriously reassess their engagement w/Iranian govt institutions.”

With Tehran waiting for a less hostile US president after the 2020 elections, the loss of relations with the think-tank community could mean greater chances for US sanctions and restrictive policies continuing no matter who wins the election.

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