>Since the global Covid-19 pandemic began, a cluster of U.S. think tanks has been aggressively lobbying the Trump administration to escalate militarily toward Iran and tighten U.S. sanctions. This push has come despite warnings that such sanctions are worsening the death toll of Iran’s outbreak, which is one of the worst in the world. The think tanks leading this effort—the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—have cranked out non-stop statements, research documents, videos and media appearances since the crisis began. They are not shouting into the wind, but speaking directly to an administration that has proven willing to act upon their words.
>In the 47 days since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, the FDD has posted 56 articles, podcast interviews and videos on its website which either demonize Iran as a uniquely bad actor or urge the United States to take a confrontational posture towards the country. While the steady stream of anti-Iran invectives is not new, the insistence that the Covid-19 crisis builds their case is. One piece from April 14, for example, argues that the crisis strengthens the case for “regime change,” because it will diminish “the regime’s credibility even further and add fuel to the outrage and anger that have been building for years.” The unproven theory that mass suffering will accelerate an uprising against the government has long been used to justify a host of punishing U.S. policies against the Iranian people, including sanctions—a form of collective punishment has only unleashed poverty and premature death upon ordinary people.
>Yet, throughout the crisis, the FDD has published a flurry of materials arguing that the United States must not let up sanctions during the pandemic. The organization is funded by pro-Israel billionaires and started out in 2001 as an explicitly pro-Israel organization called EMET (Hebrew for truth). Since the pandemic began, it has published written and video posts that include: “Tehran Can Afford to Fight Covid-19 Even Without Sanctions Relief,” “The Coronavirus Is Absolutely No Excuse To Lift Sanctions on Iran” and “Humanitarian channels to Iran continue to be wide open.” In a March 27 video, Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of FDD, released a video arguing that “the Iranian people know that this is the wrong time to give sanctions relief.”
>In fact, doctors in Iran have been begging the Trump administration for relief from sanctions, which are cutting off critical medical supplies, like ventilators, leading to an increase in Covid-19 deaths. While humanitarian exemptions technically exist on paper, they are rendered largely meaningless by a difficult-to-navigate web of sanctions, as well as threats and intimidation from the Trump administration, which have scared global banks and firms from doing business with Iran. Researchers were warning that sanctions were causing a shortage in medical supplies before the outbreak began: As Human Rights Watch said on April 6, “these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of U.S. and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.”
>Hoda Katebi, an Iranian-American community organizer with the No War Campaign, told In These Times that the FDD’s role is “wildly ruinous—there's no nicer way to put it.” According to Katebi, “You'd think a humanitarian crisis would be a time when war hawks pause rather than ramp up their project. It is telling what their goal is. With all their talk about wanting to help the Iranain people, it’s very clear it's quite the contrary.”
>Amid calls for sanctions relief, the Trump administration has only dug in more, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issuing a statement on March 18 announcing a new round of sanctions that “will deprive the regime of critical income from its petrochemical industry and further Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation.” This was soon followed by the Trump administration’s intervention to block an emergency $5 billion loan to Iran from the International Monetary Fund (a position the FDD also supported). But this did not satisfy the FDD. On April 23, a group of “experts and formal officials” signed a letter to Trump urging his administration to “double down on the maximum pressure campaign.” Of the 50 people who signed, 22 were from the FDD, according to a report in the conservative publication The National Interest.
>Cavan Kharrazian, international program researcher for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told In These Times, “Their letter echoes the State Department's categorically false line that these broad economic sanctions have no humanitarian effects. Despite claiming that their ‘hearts go out’ to the Iranian people, they actively contribute to an extremely dangerous foreign policy that harms millions of ordinary Iranians and pushes us closer to escalating military conflict.” This danger is underscored by Trump’s April 22 claim that, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea”—a reference to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf.
>One of the signatories is the FDD’s senior advisor Richard Goldberg, who worked in the Trump administration from 2019 to 2020 while he was also at the FDD. When serving as Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton created a job just for Goldberg: “director for countering Iran’s weapons of mass destruction.” As Bloomberg reports, “The goal was to counter what Bolton saw as a desire at the departments of State and Treasury to weaken the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran.” While Goldberg served on the National Security Council, he remained on the salary of the FDD.
>Goldberg’s double role is not the only evidence of a close relationship between the FDD and the Trump administration. When Iran declared in August 2019 that it was imposing sanctions on the FDD and Dubowitz for “unilateral and illegal economic terrorism,” Pompeo came to the think tank’s defense. “The U.S. does not take these threats lightly, and will hold the regime and its ‘apparatuses’ to account,” he tweeted. On April 17, Juan Zarate, Chairman of the FDD’s “Center on Economic and Financial Power,” appeared on a roundtable, organized by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), alongside Andrea Gacki, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he argued in favor of U.S. sanctions. Among the FDD’s biggest funders is billionaire and Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, who was one of Trump’s largest donors in 2016 and has been clear about his fervent belief that “Iran is the devil,” as Eli Clifton reported.
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